By Susan Page
As the new administration struggles, two former White House press secretaries discuss with USA TODAY’s Susan Page on Capital Download the risks and rewards of turmoil, Donald Trump’s tumultuous relationship with the press, and whether the president should stay off Twitter. Mike McCurry worked for President Bill Clinton, and Ari Fleischer for President George W. Bush. They also weigh in on whether the president and the reporters who cover him should be toasting one another at the White House Correspondents Dinner.
On White House turmoil
McCurry: There is always this kind of period at the beginning of a new administration where there’s upheaval, there’s change. A new president coming in, new staff. But partly because Donald Trump elected to be thoroughly anti-establishment, all of the establishment procedures at the White House are kind of upended at the moment, so they’re going through I think an unusual amount of turmoil in this transition.
Fleischer: Donald Trump was not elected to be a smooth operator. He was not elected to be an established, well-known Washington hand. If people wanted to have calm, they would have elected Hillary, a Washington insider who would have known how to make the appointments, etc. but the country wants people to have Washington change. ... Ultimately, Donald Trump is going to rise or fail on the big changes he makes — whether the economy gets strong, whether wages go up, whether jobs come back to America.
McCurry: You referenced the Clinton experience, and yes, there was this kind of period of turmoil in the beginning. It took a full two years before Leon Panetta came in as chief of staff to get things kind of established as a more regular order. The problem is in the world we’re in now with everything instantaneously available, you don’t get two years to sort it all out. He’s got maybe like another two months at best I think to sort of get things on before people begin to say, what’s this presidency about at the end of the day?
Fleischer: I’ll go back to your old boss. If there’s anything he proved in the late 1990s, it’s that a roaring economy solves a lot of personal foibles.
On the press as 'the opposition party'
McCurry: There has not been a president since George Washington that thought the press was fair and balanced. ... But this is particularly belligerent, and it comes at a time when the accountability mechanisms of how we really hold power to truth, they are fragile right now. And that is the traditional role of the fourth estate. The presidents don’t like them all the time, but they usually have recognized that there’s an indispensable role there for them to be a way in which we kind of measure and hold accountable the people who are responsible for executive action. But this president doesn’t seem to honor that tradition, and that is a troubling thing to me.
Fleischer: He regularly does sit down with the top-notch, mainstream reporters — the people he decries — and he sits down with them and does the interviews. But he’ll also go around them, which of course he should. The technology of today, why wouldn’t you? Any president who doesn’t do that would be committing malpractice, from a communications standpoint.
The first 100 days of the Trump presidency
Aide: President Trump lost trust in Michael Flynn and asked him to quit
McCurry: Most presidents have at the end of the day acknowledged the vital role the press plays in protecting the interests of the American people, and that remains to be stated clearly and unambiguously by this president, and I think that is something that we should be concerned about.
Fleischer: The First Amendment is so much bigger and more powerful than the temporary words of the president acknowledging the role of the press. The press doesn’t need a president to acknowledge it; the press has it. It’s called the First Amendment, and it’s inviolate. And the press just has to do its job, whether the president likes it or not. The press just has to be neutral, and fair, and accurate and call it as they see it.
On Trump and Twitter
McCurry: It would be in most cases for a White House reporter absolute bliss to be able to wake up at 6 in the morning and see the innermost thoughts of the president on your smartphone at that time in the morning.
Fleischer: Here you have unfiltered — it’s not running through a staffing process. There’s nobody substituting their words for his. You are hearing and seeing what the president of the United States is thinking and why he’s thinking it.
McCurry: For better or worse.
On the White House Correspondents Dinner
Fleischer: My view is the president shouldn’t go. I just don’t see why you need government officials to go to a press dinner.
McCurry: It would be disingenuous for President Trump to go given his belligerence towards ‘the dishonest media.’ I mean, why would he want to be in the company of these dishonest people who he constantly every day disrespects?
Fleischer: Everybody wants the president to go because it helps sell tickets, makes for a more glamorous event. And in that sense the media is no different from any other organization in Washington that wants to have a dinner or a convention and have the biggest, best speaker they can find. The press should not be in that business of seeking governmental speakers.
On 'Saturday Night Live'
McCurry: Did you ever get lampooned on Saturday Night Live?
Fleischer: No. Jon Stewart went after me a bunch of times.
McCurry: I think on the Weekend Update part of the program, I might have gotten skewered a couple of times.
Fleischer: I got my name in a crossword puzzle a few times, but that’s about the extent of my fame.